Kingsblood Royal, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 47

He was alone in the house, after the daily job-hunt. Vestal and Biddy and Prince were out at the Timberlanes’, one of the houses where they would not be resented nor yet greased with the tactful kindness that was worse than jeering. He stood at the western window of the sunroom, meditating.

Why not flee to a metropolis or to the wilderness, and seek anonymity? No. Vestal and Biddy (and Prince) were too gregarious for any forest clearing, and New York or Chicago would be too hard and rectangular and grim. A flat would seem too constricted, after this house where there was space to dance and freedom to yell and this view up Eisenherz Hill in the last forgiving light of the frozen March afternoon.

Against the gold-leaf of the sunset, Hillhouse was a proud brick hulk with limestone-framed Tudor windows, and a flat, balustraded roof instead of the swoops of the Wargates’ roofs and rooflets. The pines on the hillside were against an apple-green strip of sky with a tapestry of apricot and purple draped above it. Pines and sunset recalled to him old canoe journeys on the Northern lakes so near to this, his own city. If his one-time friends here seemed to hate him, at least they gave him that much attention, while in Megalopolis there would be no one even to wish him bad luck. No, they would brave it out in Grand Republic.

He remembered that once he had longed to be able to buy Hillhouse. Then, he was to have become a super-banker. Biddy would be coming home from Farmington and Bryn Mawr, and Hillhouse would be full of her young set, Wargates and Sparrocks and Prutts and Drovers. Yes, he marveled, once he had longed for all this! Well, he had a livelier fight now. He would be lucky if he could keep the cottage. But to guarding that, he swore, he would devote the patience and ferocity of his Chippewa ancestors, whose bark lodges must have stood up on that hillside, only a hundred years ago.

Vestal came in gaily, started supper. They were well content. Neil informed Biddy, after supper, that once upon a time there were some extraordinary people called the Ojibways, or Chippewas, who used to camp right up there on our hill, and right here where we’re sitting, maybe they used to fight with bows and arrows among the rocks. Biddy was so entranced that she brought all her dolls and her velocipede and the slightly mutinous Prince to sit in a half-circle and listen to him.

While Vestal was putting Biddy to bed, under martial law, he wandered again into the sunroom. In the bold moonlight, the shadows of branches were inky on the snow-patches that were webbed with Biddy’s tracks. It was all his, his and Vestal’s and Bid’s. Here they would stay, every evening, all their lives.

Yet they did venture out once more, to an interracial and tolerant and fiercely intellectual party given by Diantha Marl, at Brian Angle’s studio. After that, they really did stay home.

Diantha, as the wife of Gregory Marl, who owned both of the newspapers in Grand Republic, was a social leader. But all on her own she was, at forty-five, an authority on China, which she had never seen, James Joyce, whom she had never read, the qualifications of all political candidates, particularly of those who were entirely unqualified, and the sulfa drugs, which she ever so faintly mixed up with vitamins. As a Talking Woman, she could currycomb a private audience as violently as any leaderess in New York or Washington.

On Race–Relations, she was tremendous. She had once sat down at the same luncheon table with a colored woman, and had been so kind to her that the poor soul had talked up just like a human being. (There had been sixteen other people at that table, and the object of Diantha’s charity had been a professional lecturer for the Nigerian Anthropological Foundation.) Whenever Negroes were mentioned, Diantha always told this story of her own tolerance; a hundred times she had told it.

Her husband’s papers were very liberal about Negroes, and stated editorially that there was no reason why they should not be employed at any work whatsoever, provided they could do it as well as any white man.

These newspapers had never employed any Negro.

Diantha was giving the party to show that whites and Negroes can mix socially without any harm, but she was not so reckless as to have it right in her own home. She had borrowed the studio of Brian Angle, who was the local art-world and who still went on believing that Diantha was really going to order that portrait of herself.

Nor was she so offensive to the social code as to invite any such ill-conditioned Negroes as John Woolcape, who was merely janitor in this same Mermaid Tavern Building in which was Mr. Angle’s studio. The Mermaid was half-timbered, or anyway it looked half-timbered, and it contained a photographer’s establishment, a music shop, a twittering of voice teachers, and Rita Kamber’s Vanguard Bookshop.

The Negroes whom Diantha did decide to invite could be counted upon for fairly civil conduct. They were Ash Davis and Neil Kingsblood.

She had also summoned Martha Davis, whom she had never met. But, by refusing to come, the woman had shown how ungrateful these darkies really are. Diantha bore up gallantly and explained to everybody who was interested, “Probably it’s just as well she’s not coming. You never know what kind of illiterate hoydens these half-educated colored climbers like this Davis will have picked up along the way.”

Diantha was surprisingly cordial in the social habeas corpus which she issued to Neil, by whom, when he had been a white banker, she had been bored, but who had now become as interesting as Gargantua the gorilla, and in the same way. Neil had not wanted to go, but Diantha had insisted with pretty petulance, “Don’t be silly! Don’t tell me you’re going to miss this chance to do something for your race. Why, you’ll meet the best people in town, Kingsblood!”

Vestal said, “You bet I’m going with you, Neil! Think I’d have Diantha probing into what she’d call our ‘love-life’ without being there to protect you?”

In the long studio, which was furnished chiefly with stacks of unsold pictures, there were sixty guests. They who did not know Neil and Ash made several unfortunate errors in picking out the Negroes at whom they were to stare, and caused Colonel Crenway to go home early and indignant.

Their host-by-pressure, Brian Angle, was a young man with a tentative beard and too much mother, who was nevertheless not a bad painter. He considered Neil undistinguished, but he told Ash that he looked like a stern and youthful doge. Lorenzo Gristad, a dark and nervous little man, a photographer, whispered to Ash, “These white guys can’t do a thing in the world for you except give you a job, can they?”

Dr. Cope Anderson, the chemist, and Peace, his wife, astonished the slummers, the rich illiterates, by talking to Neil and Ash as they would to any other reasonable human beings, and so did Dr. and Mrs. Kamber and Lloyd Gadd, the Congregational minister, though they still thought of Negroes as people whom you meet on committees. But fifty out of the sixty guests just watched Ash and Neil and waited for them to do something dirty or funny.

Nor was Neil cheered by Vestal’s first meeting with Ash.

She had never encountered him; she had heard of him only as a man whom Neil respected. All she saw now, in the man with whom Neil shook hands so affectionately, was what she described to herself as “a quite nice-looking darky, very neatly dressed, maybe an expert valet.” She gaped when Neil glowed, “Vestal, this is my great friend, Dr. Davis.”

She reflected, “A doctor? Could be. I’ve heard there are some colored doctors.”

She observed, “How d’ you do,” and she made it extraordinarily plain to Ash that she did not really care how he did, and did not want to hear how he did, and why introduce HER to colored chiropractors?

Ash bowed, not too deep, and that was all of the joyous meeting of Neil’s wife and Neil’s friend.

There was a quantity of whisky and a fair supply of chicken salad, but the tourists got tired of looking at the exhibits. The party had not been going at all, and what made it go now and go vigorously and go very badly was Wilfrid Spode.

There is a name and a talent to mark: Wilfrid Spode, known to thousands, and most unhappily, as Friddy Spode: a man who has been intimate with all the most devastating geniuses, the most obscene drunks, and the most determined Lesbians in Taos, Taxco, Woodstock, Minorca, Munich, Carmel, Chelsea, Greenwich Village, and the Left Bank of the Seine. There is a man as alien to Grand Republic as an ornithorhynchus, a man who by contrast makes Curtiss Havock seem decent and Dr. Drover gentle.

Friddy Spode was born in Kansas City, but he was an author. Nor, mind you, was he an unpublished author. His novels, which were catalogs of fornication, in style very much like mail-order catalogs, with the four-letter words all spelled out, had, till World War II, been privately published in Paris and paid for by his wife.

Friddy had a seamed and rather dirty face, the face of an evil old horse; his neck was always dirty and his nails an exhibit of dirt and his hair not so much worn long as always needing to be cut. He usually wore a corduroy jacket that was rather on the boyish side for a man of forty, and the only reason he did not wear the traditional Rive Gauche broad black hat was that people expected it of him, and he loved to disappoint them. He did better. He wore a cap — very dirty.

Yet his wife, Susan, half a dozen years younger, was as plump and clean a little pigeon as you could find outside a pot-pie. She was a painter, except that she did not paint and could not paint. And she was Vestal Kingsblood’s own cousin. She was the legitimate daughter of Counselor Oliver Beehouse.

When she met Friddy, she had been doing something exciting but phony which she called “studying art in Paris.” She was lonely there, and she could speak no French and not much of anything else. Friddy picked her up at the Cafe Select. He lived by borrowing money; he was as painstaking at begging as he was sloppy in composition; no sum was too large to whine for and none too small to take. He asked visiting American businessmen for five hundred dollars and accepted fifty; he asked little students of singing for ten francs and got fifteen.

He borrowed a hundred francs from Sue, on sight, and that night he negligently seduced her. He found out that her father was rich, and yawningly he married her. He never had any interest in her afterward, nor any especial aversion to her, while she adored him and never noticed the dirt, and believed his sour jealousies to be wit and his lore of the privy to be literature.

When the Germans were about to enter Paris, the Spodes fled, and since then they had been able to live in California by blackmailing Oliver Beehouse with the threat that if he did not come through, they would come home. Sometimes, as now, they did come, just to show how distressing it would be if they remained in Grand Republic.

For a month they had had a studio-flat in the Mermaid Tavern Building. Sue cheerfully did the cooking and the financing and made their bed whenever she could get Friddy out of it.

It had been the existence of Friddy as his own son-inlaw that had caused Oliver to be so agitated when his brother Morton found that he had a Negro for son-inlaw. To Oliver’s classic legal mind, Negroes and Hindus and American Indians and criminals were all alike, and the only worse menace than Friddy was Neil.

As soon as the food got better, Friddy and Sue would be back in Paris. Meantime they endured the bestial American tiled bathroom by finding their fun where they could. They found a lot of it tonight, in taking over the management of the helpless black barbarians, Neil and Ash.

It was not that Friddy cared a hang about Negroes, but he got a lot of innocent pleasure out of annoying Diantha’s friends.

He was in superb, international form, tonight. He had a drink and hailed Vestal as his cousin and tried to kiss her on the cheek. He had a drink and most audibly congratulated his happy and humming wife, Sue, on having in the Negro Neil one connection who was not a fool. Then he had another drink, a lot more drinks, and delivered an unscheduled public lecture.

He stated that all Negro music, sculpture, acting, pugilism and sexual hypnosis were superior to the accomplishments of the whites, and he wound up, “If you’ll all shut your traps, maybe I can get one of our colored guests to explain why it is that his race is so much subtler and more sensitive than you white bourgeois.”

Ash muttered to Neil, “That jackass knows his business. Usually, it’s a woman who does this to us. The only absolutely guaranteed way to ruin us is for some exhibitionist to overpraise us. He’s making me anti-Negro myself!”

But Friddy Spode was not forever to take over the bedeviling of the guests. The hostess, Mrs. Marl, may not have been trained on the Left Bank, but her natural capacity for making reasonableness sound disgusting was even greater than Friddy’s. It was just that she had been slow in starting, tonight, but, after enough drinks, she caught up.

In Grand Republic we do not say that a lady is a notorious drunkard. We say that she “enjoys a little nip now and then.” Diantha had enjoyed a number of nips, big and little, and she suddenly took the lead over Friddy.

She managed to annoy the two guests, Judge Cass Timberlane and Mrs. Shelley Buncer, who, by talking together in a corner and not listening to Friddy, had escaped going mad. Diantha came up to them and mourned, with all the woe of the world in her voice, “Really, I did think I could count on YOU two to show a little common courtesy to our poor guests of honor! There’s Mr. Kingsblood and poor Dr. Dash having to stand up, while you two monopolize these chairs!”

Cass got his wife and went home at once. Mrs. Buncer beat him by two stairs and one yelp.

Then Diantha got Ash to herself, and cozily complained to him, for the benefit of twenty onlisteners, “Dr. Dash, I have a bone to pick with you! Why don’t you tell these colored women not to try and talk like US? It’s too confusing. When I got your wife on the phone — and I must say she took her own sweet time answering it! — I thought she must be some white lady, and I got all balled up. Of course you know I adore Negresses and think they’re very artistic, but honest-lee, they haven’t got any right to throw us off like that!”

She took in Neil then:

“All you colored people sing spirituals so beautifully. It’s the high point of American art. So now you two boys go ahead and sing us some spirituals. . . . Shut up everybody, will you! These colored fellows are going to do some spirituals.”

“Don’t know any,” growled Neil.

Ash Davis had a wistful love for spirituals, and he did not intend to parade them for drunken whites. To him they meant that half of his ancestors who had been Negro and Indian limping on the old trail of thirst and horror, singing low that they might not whimper. He said, “Thank you, but I’m rather ignorant of them, and I’m afraid I’ll have to slip away now, Mrs. Marl.”

Diantha broke into a vast and alcoholic pity for herself, and her cultured accent slipped back into the ancestral shanty across the tracks, as she wept, “I wonner if you preshate what I— tried — oh — tried s’ hard do f’ you darkies, sevenin’?”

Lucian Firelock and his wife were there, and it was she who fluttered, “I’m a real Southern woman, Mr. Kingsblood, but I want to shout right out that Dr. Davis has been our best neighbor in Grand Republic, the nicest to our children, and I’m just mad — I’m not sure what I’m apologizing about, but I sure am doing it!”

What worried Neil was that after their introduction, Vestal and Ash had not spoken again. On the way home, he said anxiously to Vestal, “What did you think of Dr. Davis?”

“Who? Dr. Davis? Which one was he?”

If there was any sequel at all to the Case of the Drunken Hostess, it was that Neil was driven into violently embracing his crusade. It was his bride, his sword, his crown, his scourge, his victory, his defeat. It was his busy little fad and it was his prayer and his madness, his crucifixion and his glory.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38